Last month I was speaking about God. Today I will be speaking about Jesus. But before I do this let me remind you of the story line so far. My concern in this series of sermons is that we should update our language of God, that in speaking about God we should use the language of our day instead of the language of two thousand years ago when the earth was seen as flat, society was patriarchal in nature and the scientific revolution had not occurred. I suggested last time that rather than speak of `a heavenly Father` we should speak of the Spirit of Life or the Breath of life, and that such a description is consistent with traditional Christianity and contemporary thought.
Over the centuries we have had many different models of how God relates to the world. There has to be, for all models of God are limited, partial and imperfect. The oldest model is that of Theism - God as a super being residing off the planet in some kind of heaven. God is perceived as an all powerful king ruling over the personal and the political. Then there is the Personal model. This is the `I-thou` relationship. The world is of little or no significance. All that matters is our relationship with God. Next came the Deist clockmaker model which was popular at the time of the Enlightenment . God is related to the world as a mechanic is to a machine. He sets it up and sets it running according to certain principles.
All these models related to a world view current at the time, as indeed does the new and very interesting model of Sallie McFague. It is called the Ecological model and the world is seen as `God`s body`. We relate to God in caring for the earth. We meet God, not in some kind of heaven, but in the garden. Sallie McFague is a top class theologian and she develops this idea in her latest book `A New Climate for Theology`. She counters the charge of Pantheism (everything is God) by saying God is to the universe what we are to our bodies. Our bodies are part and parcel of us but we are more than our bodies.
But the model that I find fascinating today is that which might be described as the Evolutionary model, that God is the evolutionary impulse inviting us to fullness of life, that there is within us and our world an impulse to grow and develop, to take the next step towards fullness of life. The Spirit of life is continually issuing invitations to take the next evolutionary step, to go beyond our perceived limits. The New Testament is full of it. `Stretch out your hand`. `Take up your bed` `Follow me`. `Walk on the water`. There Jesus was, walking on the water, calling Peter to step out of the boat and do likewise. Peter didn`t make it and is generally regarded as failing. Not a bit of it! His stepping out of the boat was an act of faithfulness. Failure is refusing to step out of the boat. Let`s not concern ourselves whether the stories are historically true. They are true whether they happened or not. They are about taking the next step in an evolving life story - God as the evolutionary impulse calling us to take the next step in our evolving life story, calling us to take the next step towards fullness of life.
The evolutionary model is a way of speaking of God in a contemporary way. We live in a scientific world. Evolution is clearly an idea that has come. One can shut ones eyes to it but one cannot deny it. (Did you notice the other day that the Anglican Church is offering an apology to Charles Darwin?) I am not suggesting that there are no differences between science and religion. They are operating out of different concerns. Science is about making an atom bomb. Religion is about whether or not to make it. The conflicts between science and religion are by no means over, and what we desperately need today is to be able to express the Christian faith in terms that can be understood by people who live in the twenty first century - and that is what I find so exciting about the so called evolutionary model : God as the evolutionary impulse inviting us, nudging us, calling us to fullness of life.
Where does Jesus come into all of this? Is this model `Christian?` I will be suggesting today that it is profoundly so, that John 10:10 sums it up when it has Jesus saying `I have come that you might have life in all its fullness` and that, in his relationships and his teaching, he lived and promoted the idea of fullness of life.
The most difficult thing about today`s sermon has been giving it a title. Some possibilities were `Fullness of Life`, `Life in all its fullness` and `The Evolutionary Impulse`. In the end I settled for `Being Fully Alive` because of its double meaning: the destiny of humanity being to be fully alive, and as a description of Jesus - `Being fully alive`. Jesus becomes the lens through whom we interpret God, the world and ourselves. Jesus is what it means to be fully alive. Jesus is `being` personified. What does it mean to be a human? Jesus shows us what it means `to be` a human being. He is `Being` fully alive.
Let`s start with the Old Testament with which I admit I have always had difficulty. When I as in theological college I learned of a heretic called Marcion who wanted to do away with the Old Testament on the grounds that the new had come. I largely share his views and find the warlike, destructive God of the Old Testament so remote from the life and teaching of Jesus as to be irrelevant. But every now and again there is a gem within the morass of violence and legal prescription. Of such is the account of Moses and the burning bush.
Moses is minding sheep near Mt Horeb when he notices a bush which, although burning, is not consumed. The symbolism is, of course that of the eternal flame - a symbol for God. Moses asks of the presence within the burning bush, `What is your name?` In those days the name meant more than it does today. It sought to represent the nature of the person. Moses has been called to free the Israelites from captivity and so he asks, `Who will I say has sent me? What is your name?` He waits with baited breath for the answer - and the answer is the oddest name you have ever heard. The answer given is havah - the verb `to be`, a word closely associated with the word chavah `to live`. This passage is translated by most as `I am who I am`. When they ask, `Who has sent you?` say `I am has sent me`.
To many this is most peculiar answer. Not a bit of it! It defines the essence of God - that of being, the life force, the essence of life, the substance of life, the evolutionary impulse, or however else you want to describe life itself. The theologian who came closest to speaking of God in this way was probably Paul Tillich. He spoke of God as `the ground of our being`- the `depth of our being` vis a vis the shallowness of much of what we know as life. The titles of his books portray what he was on about: `The Courage to Be`, `The New Being`. He suggested that rather than thinking of God as a supernatural person out there, think in terms of depth. `The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God`. God is the ground of our being. In God we live and move and have our being. As Gene Marshall puts it `God is not the greatest or largest of beings. God is the ground of all being. God is that awesome and mysterious reality in which all things live and move and have their being`. The Guardian newspaper has a queries column and a few weeks ago someone asked the question `Why is there something rather than nothing?` It`s the question of being and it is central to life. In the corner of Paul Gaugin`s largest painting are three questions. `Where did I come from? Who am I? And where am I going?` The question of `being` is central to life. What does it mean to be a human being? The Christian`s answer is that Jesus reveals to us what it means to be, to be a human being.
Can you imagine how different history would have been if we had concentrated on showing people how to become human beings in this world rather than all the heaven talk we have engaged in. The Christian faith is about this world, about becoming a human being in this world. It is after all the only world we have - an evolving world with God as the evolutionary impulse inviting us to fullness of life. The Christian faith isn`t about reward and punishment in some future world. It is about being a human being in this world. When Pilate said, `Behold, the man` he was in fact saying more than he realised. He was bearing witness to the central significance of Jesus. `Behold, the man!` You and I are not really human. We are less than human. We are not human beings trying to become spiritual. We are already spiritual beings. The question is: `How to become human` and our claim as Christians is that Jesus shows us what it means `to be`, to be a `human being`.
Is all of this found within our traditional story? It certainly is! It is in the scriptures in the words `Son of Man` - the words that Jesus used to describe himself. It is always interesting to read of what others think of someone. It is even more interesting to know what a person thought of himself and this is why the words `Son of Man` are so important. They are used eighty four times in the New Testament and only by Jesus of himself. Some say it was simply a different form of saying `I` - a kind of a `nickname` if you like. I would still ask the question `Why was it chosen as a kind of nickname?` The Hebrew words `ben adam`, translated as `Son of Man` literally means `of the human race`. Jesus used it as a way of referring to himself. Not once does anyone else refer to him as the Son of Man. The expression appears only on his lips and it is used as a form of self reference. And I find that very significant. It lines up with what I am suggesting this morning, that Jesus reveals to us what it means to live an authentic human life.
The question for you and me, of course, is how do we translate that into our own struggle to be a human being. Jesus never married, raised children, dealt with the second half of life or faced the problems of the twenty first century but he continues to reveal to us the essential nature of what it means to be a human being - the centrality of non violence, of love, of compassion, of forgiveness and so on. Our culture gives us one answer of what it means to be a human being. Jesus gives another - and the two are very different!
How then to conclude?
It concerns me deeply that most people in our society have no idea of what the Christian faith is about. Most of them think of it as being good and going to heaven and being bad and going to hell - and that Jesus dying on a cross somehow seals the deal and when the roll is called up yonder I`ll be there. No way! The Christian faith is about this world. It`s the only world we`ve got! The Christian faith is about fullness of life here and now. It consists of right relationships with God and our fellows, of loving God and loving neighbour. This is the way to fullness of life - the way of love, as over and against the way of violence and consumerism.
Evelyn Underhill maintained that we spend our lives conjugating the verbs `to have` and `to do` but neither of these verbs has any ultimate significance until it is transcended and included in the fundamental verb `to be`. `To be or not to be` really is the question! And if that is the question, then Jesus of Nazareth is the answer. Jesus gives us the answer to what it means to be a human being.
I am conscious that all this is pretty heavy stuff - important but very heavy stuff. How does one express it simply? I wish I knew! Better men than I have tried and failed. But there were a couple of people who came close to it in their poetry. The first is well known - the poem of Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled `Who am I?` Written in a Nazi prison he considered the question of `What is my core identity?`
`Am I that which other men say, or am I only what I myself know of myself. Am I one person today and another tomorrow? Who am I?
They mock me these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest O God, I am thine.`
The other person was Studdert Kennedy and he wrote a kind of poem called `Faith`. Here is part of what he says.
How do I know that God is good? I don`t.
I gamble like a man.
I want to live, live out, not wobble through
my life somehow, and then into the dark.
I must have God.
This life`s too dull without.
What`s man to live for else?
I`d drink myself blind drunk
if I could not look up to see blue skies,
and hear God speaking
through the silence of the stars.
How is it proved?
It isn`t proved, you fool, it can`t be proved.
How can you prove a victory before it`s won?
How can you prove a man who leads,
to be a leader worth the following,
unless you follow?
I have my reasons for this faith,
but they are not the reasonings,
the coldly calculated formulae
of thought divorced from feeling.
They are true, too true for that.
I see what you see!
This life stinks in places, `tis true,
yet scent of roses and of hay new mown comes stealing on the evening breeze,
And through the market`s din,
I hear sweet bells ring out to prayer,
and see the faithful
kneeling by the Calvary of Christ.
I bet my life on Christ - Christ crucified.
Not beauty`s passing shadow but its Self,
its very self made flesh, Love realised.
Such is my faith
and such my reasons for it,
and I find them strong enough.
And you? You want to argue?
Well I can`t. It is a choice.
I choose the Christ.